Originally posted by fightclubsandwich in September 2009.
Lately, I have become – arguably – a keener diarist than ever. I’ve gotten a thirst for reading anything non-fiction and am writing anywhere between two and five pages a day. I’ve been writing diaries on and off for the last six or seven years of my life. It’s something I feel really proud of, and it’s hard to express why. In the same way that people are shaped by their experiences, my journaling has been influenced by any number of other things that other people have written. This article is a list of things that I read, that then either changed my way of writing diaries completely, or at least invigorated my passion for it. All together they form something of a brief history of my diary-keeping life, and thinking about these books (or thinking about thinking about them… which is weird) made me think about all the great reasons there are to keep a book you write in every day.
If you don’t recognise Miss Thermopolis’s name, that’s likely because she’s a fictional character, from the Princess Diaries books. I understand that the thirteen year old girl demographic is not exactly the prime target audience of this website, webzine, whichever, so I will forgive you for not being entirely familiar with this particular series of books. If you are a thirteen year old girl, I am very sorry, I will try to swear less.
Unsurprisingly, I started reading the Princess Diaries books as a thirteen year old girl, and was inspired to start writing my own diary immediately. The book is written in the style of the real diary of the main character, and the author, Meg Cabot, really makes the most of the format she’s chosen. Mia writes her diary in lessons, at school, especially Algebra, which she hates. She has written conversations with her friends, she writes about things that are happening in the classroom she’s in at the time; she makes notes about her homework; she composes silly lists with her friends about which actors they find attractive or their favourite TV shows. At some of the more dramatic moments she writes a statement of the latest plot development at the top of the page, says she’ll write about it later and leaves the rest blank.
I’d argue that it’s very true to the way a real teenage girl would write a diary, but the truth is, it’s such a huge influence on my own style of writing my journal. Like Mia, I write a lot of entries that start with declarations of where I am at the time of writing, e.g. in a lecture. I make notes about homework and used to have written conversations with my friends in the diaries of my teenage years. I realised soon that what really appealed to me about this style of Mia’s was that it went beyond a direct retelling of what she’d done that day. One of the most offputting things about writing a diary is the idea of churning out entries that read “today I woke up and got dressed and brushed my hair and ate some cornflakes for breakfast, and drank some coffee, and then went to lectures and we learned about African American writers who lived in Europe and how their nationality eclipsed their race and then I shot myself in the head because I found it so boring to write all this shit down so dryly.” (dear thirteen-tear-old-girl readers: I’m sorry about the swearing and the suicide joke, please do not tell your parents)
My actual diary entry for today consists, so far, of things I did last night, speculation about the future, my current state of mind, notes for the future, (I have to buy washing up liquid…) it’s just so much more fun to write stream-of-consciousness style, utterly structureless diaries. If you want to, why not go ahead and write four pages on a new scarf you purchased, or how some guy locked his dog in his van, but in the driving seat, which looked hilariously like the dog was driving a van, and totally leave out the part where you fell over and scraped your knee or went to the cinema or what have you.
Cabot obviously chose to write her book in this particular format because a diary is something that is shaped so completely by the identity of the writer. This is such an obvious thing to say, I know, but it’s true, and The Princess Diaries totally ingrained in me that whole idea of your diary being shaped by your own experiences, your own life and emotions and personality. It’s a chance to be completely in control of something and a way to express yourself in a way that is like no other medium with it’s complete lack of limits.
My Friend Natalie
I have a friend called Natalie, who I have known ever since we were both seven. I’d never hesitate to call her one of my closest friends, but it was only last year that she showed me her inspiration journal, and that’s the only part that’s really relevant to this article – to go any further would be to completely shed any pretences of real subject matter and completely derail this piece into self-indulgence.
Anyway, Natalie is an art student, and it was during her foundation year that she showed me this book. It was a small one – a little bigger than a quarter of an A4 page – which she treated as a scrapbook. It was amazing. It was gloriously multimedia – she just stuck in anything she saw and liked, basically. Adverts torn out of newspapers, drawings on the backs of envelopes, scraps of fabric, ribbon, sequins, photographs, playing cards, anything at all, every inch of every page was completely covered. The spine was tight and tense, the front and back covers nowhere near each other. She still maintains these inspiration journals, the last one I saw had playing cards with typewritten words on them (notably after we saw The Dark Knight this summer) and drawings of trees she’d done, among other things.
Maybe it’s cheating to include her on this list, since technically, Natalie doesn’t keep diaries. These books don’t have dates, they have very few words, and those they do have are mostly incidental. But I just love the idea of adding a collage element to diaries. The next one I started after seeing Natalie’s was filled with ticket stubs, patterned tape with Christmas trees on for giftwrapping, pictures of Matt Skiba, chewing gum wrappers, images cut off flyers for art shows or bands playing gigs (that I did not go to). This diary ended up extraordinarily fat and difficult to close properly, but the mixed media approach was so much fun, and it felt like a way to rejuvenate my love of keeping diaries – it’s difficult to write one every single day, so I told myself that for this one, I would just have to put something on a page every day, it could be a drawing, or stick in some sweet wrappers, or anything at all, just so long as it was something. I photocopied a page of a Virginia Woolf novel at one point, became an even more avid magazine cut-up-er, and of course, allowed my housemate to draw a picture of “Moon Hitler” walking around in a Star-Wars-looking robot. (I don’t know why, either)
To be perfectly honest, I found Mr Rollins’ literature initially quite disappointed. I ran out and bought Black Coffee Blues immediately after having seen his spoken word show, which was such an utterly amazing experience – too brilliant to describe with any brevity here – so it couldn’t help but come off unfavourably in the comparison I couldn’t help making. Black Coffee Blues is simply just not a good expression of how brilliantly intelligent Rollins really is. The book can be split into two parts – the first is somewhere in the region of two hundred (I wish I had my copy of the book with me right now) very short pieces of fiction. They’re between a paragraph and a page long. Many themes are recurring, which makes it interesting to identify connections between them. Are any of them about the same characters? Rollins is very effective with what he leaves out, what he doesn’t tell you, in these short pieces, he cuts out morality, names, and plays around with tenses and perspectives, but overall the prose itself is kind of hamfisted. It gets a little frustrating, there’s this feeling that he could write something better than this and that the book is trying to articulate something really special, but it just… can’t
The second half of the book is extracts of diaries. This is the best part. This is the part that makes me crave Get In The Van – the work by the same author that consists entirely of diary entries. This is the book that was initially recommended to me, but they didn’t have it in Borders at the time. Rollins is a really good diarist, it’s a perfect medium for him, because he’s at his strongest and most confident when writing about either the world around him, or his and feelings and general introspection. His strength is not coming up with great ideas of things to write, it’s how he writes these things. And as I was reading the book, I got thinking about how that’s another way to think of a diary. You have all the material you could need, it’s just your own life, and it’s often mundane, or the same as the previous day; there are too many characters and too many details to condense into one page of words. But that there’s so much of it is a glorious thing. Writing a diary is taking your own life and times as raw material and strengthening your own voice, and making the telling interesting. This was what made me start to think of a diary as writing that’s no less real than a novel or poem or article such as this one. You find your own voice, and end up learning so much about time and how to arrange narratives chronologically and give opinions and get as personal as possible. Reading Rollins’ diaries is like reading someone transform their own life into… something else – I can’t think of a term that doesn’t sound so pretentious, in my head – only ever a snapshot or few pages at a time.
Henry David Thoreau
When I first applied to study literature at university, I was thinking about it in terms of plays, novels and poetry. This is probably the solid view of most people who look in on the field from the outside, and for the most part that’s the case. But I discovered, gradually, that there’s more to it than that. If you’re interested, it’s easy to find published compilations of written letters from a lot of famous authors – most notably Jane Austen and Alexander Pope, among others – and, I’m sure you could see where I’m going with this, there are journals.
Henry David Thoreau was a poet, but published a lot of his journals, and when I started studying him this year, it sparked a sudden interest in non-fiction writing for me. Most famously, Thoreau wrote Walden, his journals of a period he spent living in the woods, apart from society, and it’s considered a classic of American literature. This is such a good example of diaries as real, fancy-pants literature. It’s all polished up, of course, stuff that he wrote in the moment and then corrected and smoothed out later, before publishing, but it’s still worth looking at. Thoreau was fascinated by science – especially nature and biology – so the approach to the whole Walden project can be seen as similar to a scientific experiment, but applied to philosophy and how people live. Thoreau here puts his money where his mouth is, and weaves his life and his work together, and that’s an approach to writing journals that we can take from Thoreau. Walden is an example of complete expression, something that Thoreau obviously put a lot of work into and something to be proud of, and writing a journal gives one a lot to be proud of. Even the most unwilling to write can build up a really prolific body of work, without it even really feeling like working. You can write whatever you want to write, within this framework of stability that you’ve set out for yourself. My favourite way of looking at a diary is still as pages and pages of pure blank freedom, that slowly become a piece of the writer themselves.
I guess there’s no conclusion that I can come to that’s not completely trite and obvious, but the bottom line when it comes to keeping diaries is that there is beauty in the individual special-little-snowflakeness of someone’s journal. Diaries are kind of like rice, they’re just blank, plain things that, with the right additions and flavourings, can be moulded into the most interesting, satisfying things, but even on their own, before being touched, they’re still so intensely blank and empty that you can’t help but being filled with hope and excitement about all the things that you can write inside them, even if I am moving way away from my rice analogy. It’s one of those things that everyone approaches differently- this year I am living with a girl who writes one page every evening, a regularity which I could never enforce up on myself, and I can only wonder about what her journal is like to read. And every time I read someone else’s – the examples in this list being key – it just fills me with a strange sort of joy, a joy that comes from the confirmation that what I spend so much time and effort doing is really worth something, whether it’s art or work or whatever. Again, I have to say, I’m sorry about all the Disney movie sentiments that are drawing this article to a close, but in my defence, I did not know, when I started, that it was going to end this way. That’s just how it goes when you try to fill up a blank page.